By Craig Antolini
“There’s two,” says Kim Holloway, with polite reluctance, after being asked about the Excellence Award she received. Those who don’t know her might accuse Holloway of a humblebrag, but elevating the questioner’s singular to a plural is not a boast, but rather a display of her insistence on accuracy— because there are two, and her accomplishments give you reason to expect more are coming.
She’s only 30, and in the last 10 years she has risen to occupy her own statistic while keeping from falling into the heap of an old one. Holloway is certainly the first half-Black, half-Asian, female, young-adult IT Specialist in the U.S. Treasury Department. Filling any one of those designations would make her a minority in the department; merging all four of them makes her a pioneer several times over.
Working within the Treasury’s cybersecurity program, Holloway manages all the data activities across the department’s 10 bureaus.
“I’m the numbers lady,” Holloway says. “My role is basically as the enforcer, making sure that the bureaus within the Treasury are in compliance with federal mandates, and that includes reviewing their numbers.”
Holloway’s work earned her the department’s Excellence Award after her first year on the job. There was a time when that was the outcome she seemed moving toward all along. She was bred to overachieve. Her African-American father spent 20 years in the Air Force and was the onetime attorney general of Guam, where she was raised, and her Filipino mother is an Army engineer who Holloway says allowed for only four possible careers for her daughter: doctor, lawyer, accountant, or, naturally, engineer.
She had thoughts of being a neurosurgeon, or applying her innate tech savvy to a career in the military. But a bad relationship disrupted her plans, and nearly ended them altogether soon after Holloway finished high school. Twenty years old, she had two young kids and was seeking a way to extract herself from her abusive boyfriend.
“I was not in a good place,” she says. “I knew that going back to school was my ticket out of the relationship. I did not want to become a statistic, depending on welfare.”
Riding on the metro one afternoon, Holloway saw a Year Up ad offering the outlet she needed. “I knew it was my opportunity,” she says. Once accepted into the program, she dedicated herself to succeeding. “Everyone saw me as the quiet, smart one.”
Throughout, she tried to conceal any trace of the life she was shedding. A couple of weeks before Holloway graduated from the Year Up, her ex-boyfriend went on a drunken rampage and blackened her eye.
But she was headed one way and he another, and one sucker punch wasn’t going to change that. “I still went to school,” Holloways says. “I smiled and I put makeup on and made sure no one really knew what I was going through.”
She thrived, receiving Year Up’s own Excellence Award for academic performance. She did her internship at Cyveillance, a cybersecurity company, which provided the space to develop her technology skills. She had always been the type who could stare down a technical problem that intimidated everyone else and quickly resolve the issue. As a kid, she would troubleshoot for her father.
“My dad would always call me to fix the computer or TV, or even set up the furniture or bar set, or tell me to program the remote,” Holloway says. “I was the one basically on call.”
Cyveillance hired her as a full-time analyst after she graduated from Year Up. She discovered how much she liked being a cyber sleuth, tracking down network intruders on behalf of clients. “I like looking at the different number and anomalies, and making a case. Can we identify them? Can we trace them? Can we identify what they were going for?”
Conscious of her entry-level salary, she would go to the public library or research online whatever free material she could on the subject of cyber intelligence.
Another resource was the TV show “Criminal Minds.” She saw herself in the character of Penelope Garcia, “a brainiac and a hacker at the same time,” she says. Not to mention a woman, as well.
Garcia provided a model for Holloway in a vastly male profession, but only to a degree. Holloway populates her own demographic; she’s as much an outlier as she is a minority. As a result, she has had to fend off bias in many manifestations. There are those who see her as black and are overly impressed with her ability; those who see her as a woman and don’t believe she has the ability; and those who see her as Asian and inflate her ability. No, for god’s sake, she’s not good at math. (“I actually hated math,” she says.)
She pulls out one example: “It was rare to see another woman of color doing cybersecurity. When I first started out I would have male colleagues try to mansplain different technical items, and I’m like, OK, I got you. I already know that. I wouldn’t have gotten this job if I didn’t.”
In 2015, after Holloway completed her bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity at the University of Maryland University College, the Treasury Department happened upon her resume at a job site and hired her as an IT Specialist. In practical terms, she’s responsible for the accuracy of any cybersecurity data the department submits in response to requests from outside agencies—Homeland Security, Congress, etc.
Managing the outflow of data may sound drab next to the code cracking she used to do, but it’s vital. “Without the correct data, we’re not able to plan our strategic goals for the cybersecurity department,” Holloway says. “Without correct data you can’t help decision makers lead the organization.”
Away from her desk, she is working within the system so that she doesn’t remain such a minority. She is a member of the Treasury’s chapter of Blacks in Government, which promotes advancement opportunities for African-Americans. In April, Holloway is slated to take over the presidency of the group, handpicked by its executive board.
She continues to serve as a Year Up mentor, meeting monthly with current students to offer her aid and advice. “My message is, you can come from a very broken background, but you don’t let your circumstances break you.”
“I always have flashbacks, thinking about how if I didn’t have this opportunity, then my life would’ve probably been very … ” She stops to wait for the right word, then it arrives: “Stressful,” she says.
“I could’ve been a statistic. I could’ve been working two or three jobs to support my children. I seized the opportunity and knew it was something that was going to get me to where I wanted to be. I know that other people who want the same opportunity can do the same thing for themselves.”